At the start of our morning writing group, some friends and I were using a deck of Zen koan cards for writing prompts. I was pleasantly bewildered (a good Zen response) when the card I drew said, simply, “Mu!” Was this a message from the great feminist cow-goddess? The booklet explained that “mu” is a response meaning “not yes, not no” or “un-ask the question”. (See the Wikipedia entry.)
Lately I’ve been taking refuge in contemplating the non-conceptual, ineffable nature of God–prompted by dismay at how religious concepts so often harden into barriers between ourselves and others. As beings with finite minds, of course, we cannot avoid the specificity, and thus the deceptions, of conceptual thinking. Even to speak about “mu” is to risk turning it into another concept, an object among objects. If our worldview is a circle that contains some things and excludes others, “mu” is not so much an excluded thing as it is the general awareness that there is always something we’re not seeing.
Peter Rollins, coordinator of the experimental Christian collective Ikon, blogs frequently about this sort of negative theology, with a valuable emphasis on its radical ethical-political consequences. In a recent post, “Beyond the colour of each other’s eyes”, he writes:
The apostle Paul once famously remarked that in Christ Jesus there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. He does not say that there are both Jews and Greeks, both slaves and free, both men and woman. Rather this new identity with Christ involves the laying down of such political, biological and cultural identities. This is not an expression of ‘both/and’ but rather ‘neither/nor’. Today this idea can seem almost offensive to our ears. In many churches we find flags proudly hanging in acknowledgment of our nationality and we seek to express our political and religious ideas as a vital and irreducible part of who we are. But what if the church is called to provide a space where, just for a moment, we encounter one another as neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free? And what if Paul didn’t just mean these three categories, as if all the others remained intact? What if he was implying that there is neither black nor white in Christ, neither rich nor poor, neither powerful nor powerless? What if we could go even further and say that the space Paul wrote of was one in which there would be neither republican nor democrat, liberal nor conservative, orthodox nor heretic?…Search YouTube for Peter’s thought-provoking short videos, such as this parable from his forthcoming book The Orthodox Heretic. I can’t wholly agree with his opposition between action and contemplation, since we do need Christian philosophy to help define “right action”, and to give us a secure foundation for resisting worldly beliefs that induce pride or despair. An incarnational theology, for instance, is (in my opinion) more conducive to social equality than a gnostic-dualistic one. But I think his main point is that our priorities are often topsy-turvy. We value the external signs of Christian belief as if they were good in themselves, when their only value lies in whether they produce Christ-like behavior.
…While we cannot step out of historical time and enter the eschaton, while we cannot enact this radical negation today (for we cannot really forget our gender, our job, our sexual preferences, our political opinions, our nationality etc), some emerging collectives have developed a space in which we are able to symbolically enact this step. A place where we engage in a theatrical performance of Paul’s vision. It is the creation of what we may call ‘suspended space’….
…[T]here is a call for all who have gathered to engage in the symbolic enacting of God’s kenotic moment, the moment when God emptied God-self in the person of Christ Jesus. This Kenosis is described beautifully in Philippians when we read, ‘our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing’….
By forming a suspended space in which we theatrically divest ourselves of our various identities, we allow for the possibility of encountering others beyond the categories that usually define them. We encounter the other beyond the colour of their eyes, beyond the contours of their political and religious commitments…